One of my favorite topics to explore when leading a retreat is “The Mystical Imagination.” I often pair it with Centering Prayer, exploring how the silence of Centering Prayer naturally complements the inner imagery of prayer anchored in the imagination.
When I lead such retreats, I often will share a variety of quotations with the retreatants to make the case for why the imagination is so important, spiritually speaking. I thought it would be fun to list some of these quotations here. I invite you to reflect on these words, not merely as an argument for the importance and value of the imagination, but as invitations to enter your own imaginal space as a way to go deeper in prayer.
Praying with the imagination is not the same as Centering Prayer (or other forms of silent prayer). It’s a kataphatic form of prayer in contrast to the apophatic nature of silent methods of prayer. I invite you to see these ways of praying as complementary. Not everyone feels drawn to silent prayer, and not everyone is drawn to imaginative prayer. Some people, like me, love it all (I’m weird that way), but I encourage you to simply trust your own mind and heart to determine what “prayer style” is right for you. As Abbot John Chapman was famous for saying, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t”!
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.
— Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms
Love, not knowledge, can help us reach God.
— Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing
The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.
— Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination
The prophet seeks only to spark the imagination of this people, and that in itself turns despair to energy.
— Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
So what could bridge that gap between what we perceive with our senses and the reality far greater than our rational minds? For me the answer is imagination… When I use my imagination in prayer and reflection, I glimpse a deeper reality beneath my everyday experience.
— Margaret Silf, www.ignatianspirituality.com
The real work of imagination is to make contact with the strange world in which we live and to serve as both guide and inspiration for our development within it. It is the way we evolve. Imagination presents us with possible, potential realities that it is our job to actualise. It also presents us with a world that would not be complete without our help.
— Gary Lachman, Lost Knowledge of the Imagination
Images of the imagination are not always ‘imaginary’ or untrue, but ‘imaginal,’ presenting truths of a different, inner kind… The psyche or soul is the imagination.
— Stephen Larsen, The Mythic Imagination
The mystical imagination can show us something that science, wonderful though it is, cannot, namely, it can show us the many grace-drenched and spirit-laden layers of reality that are not perceived by our physical senses. The mystical imagination can show us how the Holy Spirit isn’t just inside our churches, but is also inside the law of gravity.
— Ronald Rolheiser, “The Mystical Imagination”
What is now proved was once only imagined.
— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Imagination is your interior sense. When you say imagination, you get into something pretty deep. . . . What normally people think of as imagination is simply fantasy . . . but imagination is not fantasy, imagination is creative. . . . The artist makes you an artist, whether you like it or not, or else you don’t connect . . . what is the deepest part of yourself, your heart or your whole self. . . . It gets right into the depths of you.
— Thomas Merton, “God Speaks to Each of Us: The Poetry and Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke” (audio recording), quoted in Carl McColman’s Eternal Heart
I perceived that God’s continual working in every kind of thing is so beautifully done—so wise and so powerful—that it surpasses our greatest imagination. God’s goodness transcends all thought, all comprehension. At that point, all we can do is contemplate God and rejoice. We allow ourselves to be filled with the overwhelming desire for union with our Beloved, to listen deeply for the divine call. We delight in God’s goodness and revel in God’s love.
— Julian of Norwich, The Showings (translated by Mirabai Starr)
Here, in this spark or “part of the soul” where the spirit, as religion says, “rests in God who made it,” is the fountain alike of the creative imagination and the mystic life.
— Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism
A layered reality is part of the [Christian] imagination. To possess this imagination is to dwell in a universe inhabited by unseen presences — the presence of God, the presence of saints, the presence of one another. There are no isolated individuals but rather unique beings whose deepest life is discovered in and through one another. This life transcends the confines of space and time.
— Wendy M. Wright, Sacred Heart: Gateway to God
The fourteenth revelation is that the Lord God is the ground of our praying. Arising from this, we are shown true prayer and steady trust and God wants us to be generous in both alike. In this way our prayer is pleasing to him and in his goodness he fulfills it.
— Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (translated by Halcyon Backhouse and Rhona Pipe)